Afghanistan is about to go back to the polls to pick a new president. Both candidates boast anti-Al-Qaeda credentials. But after America is gone, will the winner manage to keep a country that is perennially on the edge of war from reverting to its bad old ways?
President Barack Obama announced in late May a plan to cut the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by the end of the year and completely leave the nation to its own devices before 2017. The longest war the U.S. has ever fought is about to end, but no one can guarantee that Afghanistan, which once hosted the masterminds of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, will not pose a threat to the U.S. again.
Much will depend on who wins: former Afghan finance minister Ahsraf Ghani or former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. The two will face each other in a runoff election on June 14 because neither candidate managed to secure half of all votes when the country voted in April. Voter turnout was high, and Taliban threats to attack polling stations never materialized.
Both candidates say they will sign a Bilateral Strategic Agreement with the U.S. to allow American troops to remain in the country. But so had the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, who nevertheless reneged on his promise and refused to sign the pact.
Both candidates have said they would negotiate with the Taliban, and, as it turns out, so has the United States, even though it considers the group that NATO forces chased from power in 2001 a terrorist organization. This week, a three-year secret negotiation between America and the Taliban culminated in the release of America's last known prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchanged for five high-level Taliban detainees.
They included the Taliban's former army chief, Mohammad Fazl, and deputy intelligence chief Abdul Haq Wasiq. Critics of the administration are concerned that the five could resume their roles as fighters, adding to Afghanistan's instability once NATO leaves the country
Obama announced in late May that by the end of this year, 9,800 troops will remain in Afghanistan, where currently 32,000 U.S.-led NATO troops are stationed. By the end of 2015, that force would be cut once more, by half. And as Obama’s presidency comes to a close in 2016, American troops will be out of Afghanistan, fulfilling the vow he made before he was elected to end the two American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Washington has been trying to reassure its allies in the region that Obama’s withdrawal plan will leave behind a stronger Afghanistan and that in the remaining two years, U.S. troops will further help strengthen the country and its military.
This is not pie in the sky. There are good reasons to be optimistic about Afghanistan. The April elections “surprised quite a lot of people,” Britain’s former foreign secretary, David Miliband, told me recently. “The first round of presidential election went better than people expected. There were remarkable scenes of people queuing to vote, ordinary Afghans wanting to have their voice heard. And two credible candidates emerged for the second round.”
Ghani, a former World Bank official, was a high-profile advocate of a new Afghanistan in the aftermath of the NATO 2001 invasion that overthrew the Taliban. Most notably, he became a fighter against the widespread corruption that blights the country.
Meanwhile, Abdullah, a former eye doctor and senior member of the Northern Alliance, fought against the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and against the Russians’ successors, the Taliban. He is half Tajik, which may prove to be a disadvantage against Ghani, who is fully Pashtun, the ethnicity that dominates the country’s politics. But Abdullah benefits from strong Western backing and has managed to raise a lot of money for his campaign, say Afghan watchers. Either way, according to Miliband, both are “good for Afghanistan.”
Still, Miliband, who often visits the nation’s poorer villages in his current role as president of the International Rescue Committee, an organization providing humanitarian assistance around the globe, said that the country, the world’s fourth poorest, “continues to need help” from outsiders. And not only humanitarian assistance, he added, but also help “on the security and political fronts.”
As Ghani told the Atlantic Council last week in a videoconference call, the country’s annual revenue is $2 billion, while Afghanistan’s security needs cost $4.1 billion. While Obama has pledged to keep aid at the current level, Congress has cut it in half in 2014, to $1.12 billion. Expecting increased congressional scrutiny as U.S. troops leave, Afghanistan will “need to do a very significant amount of reform in management of the security forces,” Ghani said.
Also, after over a decade of NATO presence, many in the region dread the day the U.S. military and its allies leave. “What we’re stressing is the issue of a responsible exit,” Abdullah told the French network France 24 recently. “Nobody would like to see a situation that can have the potential to lead to the earlier situation before the  intervention by the U.S.”
That is why, perhaps, Afghan voters rejected candidates favored by outgoing President Karzai back in April and gave the highest number of votes to Abdullah and Ghani instead. Karzai has confronted Washington for too long, and “in Afghanistan today you can’t be too anti-American,” said one diplomat based in the region.
The expected peaceful transfer of power to a successor will be remembered as a positive Karzai legacy, said Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations. But Karzai’s bad relations with the U.S. during his second term will also be remembered, he added.
In an interview with Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch, an online streaming-audio station, Khalilzad noted that Karzai was initially a strong American ally. But as his re-election campaign approached in 2009, Karzai “came to a judgment that the U.S. was out to get him.”
Harking back to his stint as the ambassador in Iraq, Khalilzad noted that both Washington and Baghdad had said they wanted a Status of Force Agreement, like the one proposed in Afghanistan, to allow a residual U.S. force to remain in Iraq. But the Obama administration and Nuri al-Maliki’s government failed to agree, even though “a lot of people hoped we’d stay there for a long time,” Khalilzad said.
Obama’s top military advisers—most prominently the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, General Joseph Dunford—argued for leaving at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to help its military prevent an Al-Qaeda resurgence. Obama has suggested that no more than a hundred Al-Qaeda fighters remain in Afghanistan’s mountainous Kunar province. But a recently foiled car bomb attack against an American base in Afghanistan, which would have been disastrous because of the payload’s massive size, was hatched by Al-Qaeda, according to some reports, signifying, perhaps, the belligerent Islamist group’s return to active combat.
Obama has been trying to reassure Americans and Afghans that Afghanistan’s future is bright. “Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more,” he told West Point cadets on May 28.
But not everyone is reassured. “Years ago I had a friend,” a diplomat from the region recalled recently, speaking not for attribution. “I met him in Paris while we were both young students. He was French, a recent convert to Islam. He grew a beard, changed his name, moved to Afghanistan, dressed like the locals.” When the Reagan administration and Afghani mujahedeen fighters were on the point of defeating the Soviet occupying forces in the late 1980s, the diplomat said, “my friend warned his U.S. contacts, who were about to leave, that some among the mujahedeen were already talking about the next war, against America. But all the Americans said to him was, ‘Don’t worry about that.’”
Now, the diplomat concluded, “whenever the Americans say don’t worry, I worry.”
Correction: An earlier version missated the year of the NATO invasion of Afghanistan. It was 2001.